The Phenomenon of the Liberty Chorus

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Bandshell Pavillion in City Park, c. 1918, BHC Research Library Collection

The Great War was a constant exercise in patriotism for the citizens of Reading and Berks County. Citizens were asked to support the war effort through Liberty Loan drives, which were followed by Red Cross drives and ongoing petitions to purchase War Savings Stamps. Meanwhile, the YMCA and YWCA required more young men and women to do their part in the name of victory for the soldiers fighting overseas. Amidst all these demands for local citizens to fulfill their patriotic duties, leaders in Berks worked tirelessly to keep the spirit of patriotism alive in Berks County. And thus, the Liberty Chorus was born.

On July 17, 1918 a meeting was held in the Chamber of Commerce to organize committees and appoint lieutenants to arrange community sings throughout the summer. The meeting consisted of leading musical representatives from the Reading Rotary, the Penn Wheelmen, the Kiwanis Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other musical organizations.  The lieutenant’s role was to recruit choir singers and musicians to create a community singing chorus to lead the community in popular war songs. They believed a singing community would never know the burdens of war.

Reading had a reputation for its excellent singers and strong church choirs. Reading also had a prize-winning choral society under the direction of Edward Berg. With this rich history in organized singing, the Liberty Chorus was formed on July 18, 1918 with a membership of 350 men who were ready to keep the fires of patriotism burning in Berks County. The men present at the meeting that night could not have envisioned just how popular the Liberty Chorus would become.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 18 Jul 1918, Thu

The Liberty Chorus was headed by “sing leader” George F Eisenbrown. Before the American entry in the Great War, Eisenbrown was busy developing Muhlenberg Park, Illustrious Potentate of the Rajah Temple, and was partnered with his brother Charles in the family business, Eisenbrown Granite Works (P.F. Eisenbrown & Sons).

What began as a summertime experiment became a local phenomenon. Within a few weeks of their first sing at the 7th and Laurel playground on July 23, 1918, the Liberty Chorus had stoked the fires of the Reading’s patriotic spirit, making them a popular attraction in the community. They performed before crowds of 15,000 on Sundays in City Park. This was significant at a time when 19 men could be arrested for violating the Blue Laws for playing baseball.

Whether it was a pre-planned community sing or an impromptu appearance to celebrate good news from the Western Front, the Liberty Chorus made themselves available whenever the need to promote patriotism arose.  One such instance was a Sunday night/Monday morning gathering in front of the Berkshire Hotel. Despite unfortunate timing and weather, the Liberty Chorus sang their hearts out and led a parade of 5,000 citizens in joyous celebration through the rain-soaked streets of Reading (more on this topic in a future article).

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After the war, their popularity didn’t diminish, but their role in the promotion of patriotism drew to a close. Their performances were less frequent but still popular among the community. The Liberty Chorus was scheduled to lead a Christmas Carol sing-a-long on Christmas Eve in Penn Square, only to have it cancelled due to rain. Later they performed to honor the late, former President, Theodore Roosevelt at the Rajah Temple and they set an attendance record at the Colonial Theatre. Their last performance was on June 3, 1919 at the Auditorium on South 5th St to welcome home Company A, a fitting farewell to Reading’s Patriotic Singers.

On November 10, 2018, the Reading Choral Society will be bringing the sound of the Liberty Chorus back to life when our 1918 time capsule will be opened at the Berks History Center. The Reading Choral Society will be performing popular songs sung by the Liberty Chorus during the Great War. Click here for more information on this historic event. (for more on the Liberty Chorus, see the Historical Review of Berks County, Winter 2017-2018).

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

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WRAW’s Fabulous Forty

 

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Today, local radio station WRAW, channel 1340 AM, is a Spanish language station that specializes in a range of modern Latin American music. This new format reflects recent demographic changes to the Reading area.

Back in the 1960s, WRAW sounded much different. The station broadcasted in English and played a broad selection of the popular music of the day. What were the popular songs in August? The Berks History Center library houses an extensive series of weekly top forty lists played by the station.

In August of 1963 Dean Martin’s ballad “Everybody Loves Somebody” was the number one song. In 1966, Napoleon XIV’s psychedelic “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” occupied the top spot. Cream’s rocker “Sunshine of Your Love” hit number one in WRAW’s Fabulous Forty on August 11, 1968. In the last year of the century, “Soul Deep” by the Box Tops went top. It is clear that from ballads to energetic rock, these end of summer playlists reflected the changing musical landscape of the 1960s. 

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.

Sousa’s Signature: A Legend’s Final Note in Reading, PA

Sousa (left) and Eugene Weidner (Director of Ringgold Band) - 3-5-32.jpg

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a renowned American musician, composer and conductor whose music is celebrated to this day. While he led both the United States Marine Band and the United States Naval Reserve Band, he is probably better known for leading his own “Sousa Band” which he established in 1892. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the Sousa Band “covered an aggregate itinerary of a million and a quarter miles, visiting nearly every city in this country, a great many in Europe and others in all parts of the world”.

On the Saturday afternoon of March 5th, 1932, Sousa’s travels brought him to Reading, Pennsylvania.  He was in the city to conduct the Ringgold Band on the occasion of its eightieth anniversary concert, scheduled for the following afternoon. His busy itinerary began with a three-hour rehearsal at the American Legion Building at 133 North Fourth Street and was followed by an 8pm banquet at the Wyomissing Club. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack, shortly after midnight that evening, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln hotel.

Cropped Sousa Menu.jpg

One of the most interesting artifacts of the visit is a surviving dinner menu from the Wyomissing Club banquet which contains a copy of Sousa’s autograph. The menu belonged to Andrew J. Fisher (1899-1963) of Mohnton, the Ringgold Band’s first trombonist.  Fisher wrote that “ this is the last autograph that Mr. Sousa gave to anyone.  He died about one hour after he obliged me with this signature at the Abraham Lincoln hotel, March, 1932…  He was already feeling bad at this time…  I played under him for the last note he ever conducted (The Stars & Stripes Forever).”

Interestingly, a Reading Times article published on March 7, 1932 reveals how Fisher learned the news of Sousa’s passing. It explains that “Andrew Fisher, Ringgold Band trombone soloist, had just arrived home in Mohnton from the banquet and turned on the radio….  He settled down to listen to a program of Mexican music when the announcer said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are deeply grieved to announce the death of John Philip Sousa, in Reading, PA, just two hours after he attended a banquet in his honor there’.”

It was fortuitous that a trombone player from Mohnton was one of the last people to interact with an American musical icon. It was also fortuitous that Fisher’s daughter, Rachel Herb, donated this unique artifact of her father’s encounter with John Philip Sousa.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith